In 2020, “American Dirt” a novel about the experiences of an undocumented Mexican woman and her son moving to America to escape a drug cartel, caused a scandal in the book world. The author, Jeanine Cummins, got a seven figure advance, and her book received early praise from the likes of Stephen King and Sandra Cisneros. It was also heavily criticized for stereotyping/appropriating the immigrant experience and its truly out of touch marketing tactics which involved decorative barbed wire centerpieces and the author getting a barbed wire inspired manicure. But most of the debate focused on the question of whether Cummins — who had identified as white as recently as 2016 — had the right to tell this story.
Recently, there’s been a revival in the discourse because of Pamela Paul’s New York Times opinion piece The Long Shadow of American Dirt, in which she posits that the backlash against this book was both misguided and harmful to the industry. As a result, she says, “A creative industry that used to thrive on risk-taking now shies away from it.” She argues that publishers don’t make or break books – if they did, they’d make every book a success – and instead of shutting down projects like “American Dirt,” “the response from fellow Latino writers could have been more generous.”
Full disclosure: I have not and do not plan to read “American Dirt.” Writers with more informed thoughts on this have explained what the book gets wrong about Mexico and why it matters. But this focus on who gets to tell certain stories is fraught without interrogating who gets to decide what “authentic” is. Instead of focusing on authenticity, which is socially constructed anyway, we should focus on changing the structures and incentives so people can tell their stories how they want to.
According to Publishers Weekly’s 2022 survey of the industry, publishing is still 83 percent white — down just one percentage point since 2019 despite efforts from various publishers to diversify their staff. When BIPOC writers submit their books to agents and editors, they are usually sending their work to people who don’t share their own identities. When I say this, invariably, someone will point out that to imagine people different from them is a writer’s job. And that’s true. Books are by just one or two people, so writers are imagining others’ experiences all the time, and we only notice when it’s bad.
But that’s not the point. People wouldn’t care about some random white author writing BIPOC rep — even badly — if there were abundant counter narratives and good portrayals from within communities of color. But for so long, we as a society have upheld the white — usually male — voice as objective and default for telling stories. So the move to champion marginalized voices and let people within communities tell their own stories is important. Unfortunately, this has also been coopted by those who control publishing.
The identities of marginalized authors have become a marketing tool, and who qualifies as #ownvoices or “diverse” has been dictated by publishers and profit. I’ve spoken with several authors who feel uneasy about the ways their books have been marketed. It’s about identity as conceived of by others, not identity as lived. Because identity is actually messy. And the policing of identity, including the defining of what is “enough” to write certain kinds of stories, can be harmful.The same system that incentivizes someone like Cummins to claim to be Latina because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother has been used against marginalized writers, forcing them to act as perfect models for their identities online and even demanding disclosure from LGBTQ or disabled writers who have may have personal reasons for keeping their identities private.
But our obsession with “American Dirt” and book drama like it betrays a different problem with human attention as a whole. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia pointed out in a Twitter thread, after the “American Dirt” controversy, Cummins’ publisher, Macmillan, agreed to substantially increase Latinx representation. But according to conversations with others in the industry and in Moreno-Garcia’s personal experience, there doesn’t seem to have been follow through. According to Publishers Weekly, Latine authors are the least represented at Penguin Random House, the largest publisher in the industry, accounting for 5.1 percent of contributors despite being 18.5 percent of the United States population.
But these systemic issues don’t make the news. And when a novel with good representation is published, it rarely gets as much attention. “Mexican American writes good Mexican American rep” just isn’t as captivating to people as dogpiling on someone like Taylor Jenkins Reid, who is white, and her novel “Carrie Soto is Back” which chronicles the tennis rivalry between a Latina character and an Asian American.
One story or one book will not change an entire industry, because the change we need is systemic. Instead of promising to be vigilant looking out for the next “American Dirt” or even fighting about it, we should direct our attention to actually diversifying publishing — not only editors and writers but publicists and marketing people — so that books being written by people of color can get the attention they deserve. And on a personal level, instead of hate reading “American Dirt,” why not pick up and champion stories for and by Latine writers instead?
This article was originally published in the Yale Daily News as part of my biweekly column, “Reading the Room.” For more on books, check out the dearyall book archives or my last column defending the practice of reading five books at a time.